Sun angle promotes robust numbers
The most recent issue of North Dakota Outdoors is a comprehensive snapshot of the current status of many of our game animals. Touching on everything from moose to mourning doves, the issue details the challenges some populations face as well as the successes of others.
Ruffed grouse make for an interesting case. Only found in about six counties in the state, this bird has long been known to undergo a cyclic population dynamic. No one really has all the answers for this but their numbers yo-yo up and down every 8-10 years or so. Stan Kohn notes in his ruffed grouse piece, "Currently, we are also slowly moving up from a low in the population cycle."
Regardless of species, one assumption can be made regarding this time of year in North Dakota; even the entire northern hemisphere for that matter. That is, numbers are at or near their annual peak.
The spring and summer months make up the breeding season for the vast majority of organisms. It doesn't matter whether it's an insect, an amphibian or a large fur-bearing mammal; this is the time of year when all the young have been produced which spikes the overall population of just about everything. No other time of year can match the numbers out there right now.
Birds' habit of flocking gives observers great opportunity to monitor such numbers. In May and June, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds were paired off and separated by unseen boundaries into nesting areas. But by the end of June, family groups were already being seen. Now, larger and larger groups are gathering. Later this winter, flocks of blackbirds numbering in the millions will be meandering around the southern U.S.
Thousands of Franklin's gulls are currently in the Fargo-Moorhead area. The growing flock can be seen hawking insects in midair. Just a couple weeks ago, an observer estimated shorebird numbers at Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge at over 300,000 individuals. That's a lot of sandpipers. The cliff swallows - those mud-nesters found in colonies under bridges - have abandoned their nests, having finished with the year's business of bringing new ones into the world. They are still here though and their flocks are growing. Now mixing with other swallow species, flocks in the thousands are being observed in the right places.
Songbird numbers are up too, but are less easily witnessed. Unfortunately for us as birdwatchers, most if not all songbirds migrate at night. During the right time of year, a person can stand outside in the dark and hear the call notes of migrating songbirds overhead. Just last week, I started to see migrant songbirds in my yard. A Wilson's warbler, a common yellowthroat, a blackpoll warbler and a warbling vireo were present one morning. None of these species nest in my yard and some have traveled a great distance already.
Other organisms are readily displaying the result of successful reproduction as well. In the urban wildlife category, we have the Eastern cottontail. They are quite common in town all year round. Only now there are little ones, as well as adults, feeding on my landscape plants.
Behind all of this fecundity, of course, is the sun. It strikes the earth with long days during spring and summer. Sprinkle in a little water and viola, we have rampant plant growth. This, in turn, provides food for all sorts of insects and herbivores which are preyed upon by larger and larger animals. The reproductive cycle of organisms is an energy sapping endeavor and ultimately it's the sun which provides the needed boost.
Now the days are shortening and plant growth has slowed. Consequently, from now until next spring, populations of virtually every critter will fall. With no new young until the next breeding season, predation, old age, disease, starvation and other factors will erode numbers in this inexorable natural cycle.
But for the time being, nature is on full display as the bounty of the northern plains is represented by breathtaking flocks of birds and large numbers of virtually every moving beast. Savor it while you can because it doesn't get any better than right now.